Ask any of his students: Richard Gordon, principal of Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia, is the best in the nation.
The title became official Tuesday. Gordon was named Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
It’s quite a feat for Gordon, who grew up in Camden, the son of a father who was in and out of prison and a single mother who believed so fiercely in education that she rose early every day to drive Gordon to school in Pennsauken.
» READ MORE: What makes this HS Philly's most improved?
Gordon took over Robeson, a small high school that takes students from across the city, in 2013, shortly after it narrowly escaped closure. It was losing students and staff, and no one was sure what the path forward was. Gordon was a relatively new principal, but he believed strongly in building a collaborative professional climate, in the school’s potential, and in the kids it educated.
“I am the students that I serve,” Gordon said Tuesday.
He focused on building on the dedicated staff who stayed, on smoothing out the school culture, and on getting students opportunities: internships, extra classes, glimpses of the world outside their neighborhoods.
When students are in the building, Gordon’s office is a hive of activity, with students and staff wandering in and out for snacks, encouragement and advice. Everyone has his cellphone number, and he freely admits he’s “a stalker,” frequently checking on students who seem to be struggling academically or emotionally.
People started noticing what was going on at the school, and how Gordon, now 48, led it. Robeson came off the state’s list of low-performing schools. Nearly all of its students live in poverty. Ninety-five percent go on to attend college.
By 2017, the school was named the city’s most improved. Gordon has won district and state kudos for his leadership.
“Any school turnaround is hard, and it takes a special leader to sustain it,” Robert Motley, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said in a statement. “But Principal Gordon has led Robeson High School’s extraordinary turnaround keeping the success and well-being of his students as a top priority. Under his leadership, Robeson has been a model for other schools to follow and we are excited to celebrate his success with principals across the country.”
Gordon expects a lot from students, but he gives them — and their families — the kind of support that has made all the difference in Saniah Aaron’s life.
Aaron, a Robeson senior, has gone through some personal turmoil, but she never once doubted that Gordon had her back.
“He motivates people to be the best that they can, and he leads by example,” said Aaron. “He sees the potential in every student.”
Aaron, who dreams of becoming a cardiologist, has had internships at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and participated in University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University programs because Gordon encouraged her and found ways for her to attend, she said.
“He is just the best support system,” said Aaron. “He comes through for me, for all of us, in so many different ways.”
Gordon was stunned and thrilled when he heard the news Tuesday. Just before he joined a news conference announcing his win, he called his mother. They both cried.
Characteristically, he downplayed the honor, giving credit to his teachers, to his families, to his students.
“This may be my name, but this is us, this is all of us,” said Gordon, who is a product of the Neubauer Fellowship in Educational Leadership, a program that focuses on developing city principals.
But he promised to keep lifting up Robeson students as a way to show principals around the country what’s possible, eyes fixed on a singular goal: making kids' lives better.
“We don’t allow any one person to interfere with the progress of our mission,” he said.